IF YOU’RE KEEPING score at home, Gov. Charlie Baker lost another battle on Wednesday in his long-running war with the state’s teachers unions.
Baker for months had resisted the call by the unions to speed up the COVID-19 vaccination of their members. The governor insisted schools were already safe and teachers could wait their turn along with other essential workers, even after he moved those 65 and older ahead of them in the vaccination line.
But the teacher unions kept at it. They didn’t want to be perceived as jumping the line, so they initially argued that Baker needed to give them more clarity about when they would be vaccinated. But as Baker pressed schools to resume in-person learning, the unions said the vaccination of educators was needed to make that happen.
Baker initially balked at that claim, saying existing safety measures and a new pooled testing program were enough. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seemed to be on his side.
But then the political dominoes began to fall.
First, House Speaker Ron Mariano jumped on the teachers union bandwagon, followed by Senate President Karen Spilka, and President Biden himself. They all argued vaccination of educators was crucial to safely returning teachers and kids to classrooms, and Biden backed that claim on Tuesday by allowing teachers to sign up for vaccinations at pharmacies participating in a federal distribution program.
“The governor has no excuses anymore,” Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy told the Boston Herald. “It’s time for Charlie Baker to get with the program. Everybody else is on board. He can make it happen and he can make it happen starting tomorrow.”
The governor threw in the towel on Wednesday, saying he was allowing teachers to start booking vaccination appointments on March 11 to avoid confusion between state and federal eligibility standards. “This is a huge victory for our students, our school employees, and our entire school community,” said Najimy.
It wasn’t the first victory the unions have won over Baker. In 2016, the governor got behind a referendum question to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. Baker, a major proponent of charters, tried to frame the debate along social justice lines.
“The fact that we have 37,000 kids on a waiting list to get into a school of their dreams here in the Commonwealth is a disgrace,” Baker said. “We have a great opportunity to do something about that.”
But opponents, led by teacher unions, pushed back against the governor’s narrative, arguing that expansion of charter schools would only undermine traditional district public schools that were struggling under an outdated funding formula. The teachers unions turned the ballot question into a referendum on support for public schools and the question was crushed by a 2-1 margin.
Looking ahead, the next major battleground between the teacher unions and the governor is likely to come on the state’s standardized tests. The Baker administration and much of the education establishment have championed the tests as a way of measuring student progress, but teachers unions say the tests are a waste of money and time.
Baker canceled the tests in 2020 when COVID first hit, but he has indicated a lower-stakes version of the test will go on this spring. Andrew King, a board member of Citizens for Public Schools, which is funded primarily by teachers unions, previewed the upcoming debate in a recent CommonWealth op-ed.
“Students are not the ones who need to be held accountable right now,” he said. “We must hold the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accountable for providing the help and resources that our schools need: safer school buildings, contact tracing, vaccinations for teachers, improved remote learning opportunities for students, and full funding for the Student Opportunity Act. That is, we need a just recovery in education that halts the damaging high-stakes standardized tests, and puts the health, happiness, and well-being of every child at the center of learning now and in the post-pandemic era.”